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Ask a Master Gardener: Never over-water house plants

Ask a Master Gardener: Never over-water house plants

Dear Master Gardener: My friend gave me a baby spider plant from her parent plant but I think I may have over-watered it because it doesn’t seem to be doing well. How should I care for my spider plant and how does a person propagate the babies?

Answer: Chlorophytum comosum, also known as spider plant or airplane plant, is any easy houseplant to grow and enjoy. Most likely your spider plant has been over-watered, as it prefers partially dry to dry soil. It also does best with cool to average home temperatures and bright indirect light. Placing a spider plant in direct sunlight may cause the tips of the leaves to burn. Fertilize your spider plant and other houseplants from March through September.

Spider plants are easy to propagate. At the end of long stems, called runners, miniature plants, called plantlets, will develop following flowering. Plantlets often form short, white aerial roots while still attached to the parent plant. Do not remove a plantlet from the parent plant until it has roots. If you want to speed up root development, you can pin the plantlet down in another pot with soil and wait for the roots to form (this may take two to three weeks). After roots have developed, cut and remove the plantlet from the parent plant and place it in a pot. A professional potting soil containing sphagnum peat moss with little to no perlite is best.

Dear Master Gardener: The poinsettia I bought for Christmas is dropping leaves and has what looks like small patches of cotton where many of the leaves attach to the stem. What is going on?

Answer: It sounds is if you are experiencing an attack by one of the most common plant insects, mealybugs. They are tiny (1/8 to 1/4 inches long), pale insects whose females and egg sacs are covered with a white, waxy substance. Although mealybugs have legs, they are sluggish and move very little. They tend to congregate in groups, like small wads of cotton, in leaf axils and on the undersides of leaves. They suck plant sap, causing stunted and distorted growth and leaf drop. They excrete a substance called honeydew that sometimes encourages sooty mold fungi. In addition to poinsettias, mealybugs are attracted to other plants; such as, philodendrons, coleus, ficus, jade, hoya and cactus. Because the waxy substance on mealybugs repels pesticides, chemical control is difficult. Fortunately, handpicking can eliminate small infestations, as does “painting” the bugs with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.

Dear Master Gardener: Is it difficult to create a bonsai or am I better off just buying one and trying to maintain it?

Answer: The Japanese art of bonsai is a combination of horticulture, art and philosophy. The goal of bonsai is to produce a miniature planting that appears old and is visually balanced. The placement of branches, styling, and the pot all express symbolism and reverence for nature.

The five basic bonsai styles are: formal upright, informal upright, leaning, semi-cascade, and cascade. There are also advanced styles, which are derived from the five basic styles, but are best learned by joining a bonsai club. You are working with living plant material, which will need pruning throughout the growing season to maintain the style you have chosen. To be successful in achieving a mature bonsai with the appearance of an old tree in miniature, pruning is crucial.

The best plant material to use for bonsai should have small leaves or needles, attractive bark, and the trunk must give the illusion of maturity. The trunk should have a good sized diameter, but be in proportion to the remainder of the tree. The trunk should taper gradually toward the top of the tree. To give the appearance of age, the upper 1/4 to 1/3 of the root structure of a mature bonsai is frequently exposed on the soil surface in the pot. Wire is used for shaping and twisting branches. There are special shallow pots for a bonsai tree and unless you have a round or square pot, a tree is never placed in the middle of the pot, but rather planted off-center in an oval, rectangular or free-form container. Your bonsai will need frequent repotting when it is young, maybe even twice per year until it is five-10 years of age. Spring is the time for repotting, root pruning and pruning branches. The tree’s growth rate will determine the frequency of repotting. Bonsai are styled from hardy, woody plants, which remain outdoors during all seasons of the year, so you will need to use a plant that is hardy to zone three. Junipers and maples are often used by beginners. They are maintained like any other landscape trees; although they may need to be watered at least once per day during the summer, as they are in shallow pots. Watering is critical to avoid permanently damaging the root system.

This is a very cursory answer to your question, and if you are serious about starting your own bonsai, it may be beneficial to check out a book on how to bonsai from the Brainerd Public Library.

If you are interested in bonsai and get the chance to visit Washington, D.C, the National Arboretum has one of the largest collections of bonsai and penjing (the Chinese counterpart) in North America. Their bonsai festival is the first week in May. The Minnesota Bonsai Society assists members in learning the art of bonsai. The club has special programs for bonsai beginners and offers a wide variety of programs and activities for all levels of bonsai skill. You can contact the club at: Minnesota Bonsai Society, P.O. Box 32901, Minneapolis, MN 55432. Their website is:

February garden tips:

• Check houseplants for salt buildup, which appears as a crusty, white residue on soil surfaces and as a white ring on clay pots. Scrape off the white salt on soil surfaces. Then place the plant and pot in a kitchen sink, preferably one with a spray attachment, and gently and thoroughly water it until water runs out the bottom. Repeat this procedure after 20 minutes.

• Annual seeds that should be started in February because they germinate and grow so slowly are impatiens, petunias, wax begonias, pansies and gerbera daisies. Later in the month ageratum, lobelia and love-in-a-mist can be started.

• Over-watering is the most common cause of houseplant decline and death. One way that may prevent this is to place a plant in a pan of water at least two inches deep for 20 minutes, thereby watering it from underneath. Do not water for another week.

• Do not brush or shake frozen snow from shrubs. Doing so does more damage than does leaving the snow in place.

• Pruning of trees and shrubs should be done while they are dormant. In winter months the overall shape of the plants is clearly discernable and diseases are unlikely to be spread. Deep snow, however, can make pruning hazardous or impossible.

Crow Wing County Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension Service. All information given in this column is based on research and information provided by the university. To ask a question, call the Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1000, extension 4040, and leave a recorded message. A Master Gardener will return your call.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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